Inside a box 2 feet by 1 ½ feet in size lies a treasure trove of women’s suffrage memorabilia that sat undisturbed for over a century. Found by Libbie and George Merrow when they were cleaning out their Bloomfield, Connecticut, home last year, these hundreds of letters, newspaper clippings and photographs once belonged to suffrage leader Isabella Beecher Hooker, and provide a rare insight into the inner thoughts and workings of the 19th century women’s suffrage movement.
The collection includes 26 letters from Susan B. Anthony and 10 from Elizabeth Cady Stanton written to advocate, abolitionist and lecturer, Isabella Beecher Hooker (the half-sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe). What makes these artifacts so unique is that they are political, not personal. They provide a unique look into the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day maneuvering, by both key players and lesser-known suffragists, that went into securing women the right to vote.
“I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to hold a letter that she had held more than a hundred years before,” Kitt told the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collectionsdepartment when she realized she was in possession of an actual letter Susan B. Anthony had written to Isabella Beecher Hooker. Kitt went on to explain, “It really shows you what these women went through. They really busted their butts for us.”
How did the Merrow family come into possession of these amazing historical artifacts? It was George’s grandfather who purchased the former Beecher Hooker house at 34 Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut. The Hookers sold the house when they could no longer afford its size and elegance, and left some personal affects behind.
This window into the suffrage movement survived two moves and has been passed down twice within George Merrow’s family, ultimately ending up in the family barn. When the couple decided to sell the barn and clean it out, they stumbled across the box, but they moved it to their porch and covered it with a tarp where it remained for a year.
Mainly written between the years 1869 to 1880, the letters highlight a particularly important—and often brushed over—moment in the movement, which found suffragists struggling with whether they could support the 15th amendment (that would grant black men suffrage) if women weren’t included.
While Lucy Stone (the first woman to ever carry her birth name throughout her entire, married life), wrote to Hooker explaining her support of black male suffrage on August 4, 1869, saying, “I believe that just so far as we withhold or deny a human right to any human being, we establish a basis for the denial and withholding of our own rights,” other activists believed obtaining suffrage rights piecemeal was counterproductive to the movement. All eyes were on Hooker—which side she would choose?